Marketing, communications and brand empathy in the time of coronavirus

Empathetic marketing is more critical than ever, enabling brands to better understand and more deeply connect to audiences.

Crisis can tear an organization apart or make it stronger. Challenging times can demonstrate character or reveal flaws. They can also present the opportunity for those of us in higher education, the business world and society at large, to rise up in new and innovative ways that best benefit the communities we serve, meeting their needs and addressing their particular and unique situations.

In fact, academic institutions throughout the country have been doing just this, and in ways we can all learn and benefit from during these demanding times and beyond. Because as difficult and life-altering as it is, the COVID-19 pandemic provides the chance for our institutions and leaders to become the best versions of themselves.

This collective best version has at its foundation the lesson that never has brand empathy, and empathetic marketing, been more critical than it is today. Brand empathy is about creating a shared journey between your brand and its audience. It enables brands to better understand and more deeply connect on an emotional level to audiences on the audiences’ terms. This then serves as our guide to creating relevant information with which our audiences can relate, embrace, engage and benefit.

Nicholas Scibetta, vice president for marketing and communications, Stony Brook University (N.Y.)
Nicholas Scibetta, vice president for marketing and communications, Stony Brook University (N.Y.)

If your institution already has a strong brand, an established mission and vision, and authentic core values you consistently follow, now is the time to lean into those in dramatic ways. You don’t abandon—or create—these things in times of crisis; you use them to further strengthen your relationship with your audience. And you rely on them heavily to adapt to changing scenarios.

Our mission at Stony Brook University is built around providing the highest quality education; advancing research; providing community leadership; offering state-of-the-art health care; and celebrating diversity. Our first and foremost overarching goal is to provide the best educational experience for our students and a workplace environment that fosters success for our faculty and staff.

Through the COVID pandemic, we have developed new ways to do that while keeping brand empathy at the heart of all we do. We kept our focus squarely on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and, probably most importantly, for whom we’re doing it. That is, students, faculty, staff and our communities, on and off campus.

Of course, we are not alone. Whitman College in Washington developed interactive virtual campus tours led by students and centered on the student experience. President Frenk of the University of Miami held a virtual roundtable with student media covering various aspects of the ‘new normal’ in learning. The University of Oklahoma hosted a five-day virtual career festival to connect their recent graduates to decision-makers at hiring companies. All of these examples, and many others, reflect their institution’s student focus during the age of coronavirus.

With clinical care and medical science in mind, research institutions have joined forces across all campus disciplines to focus on another brand empathy pillar: commitment to the communities they serve.

University of Wisconsin faculty and students introduced a COVID-19 app. The University of Memphis built laminated communications boards so intubated patients who can’t speak can still communicate with doctors and loved ones. Like Stony Brook, Sacramento State and University of North Georgia turned 3-D-printing labs into mass-producing face mask “factories” when personal protective equipment (PPE) was desperately needed. And schools from Vermont, to Texas, to California have combined ingenuity and innovation to design new ventilators and related devices, just as we’ve done at SBU.

The common thread is that these institutions didn’t change their philosophies or rebrand themselves. They built on all the good things they had already established and had going for them, and turned them up a notch. They put their people, resources, experience and expertise to work in creative new ways that were called for in response to the changing times.

Beyond taking swift actions across our hospital system to protect the public and our campus community, at SBU we’ve brought together our Marketing and Communications resources to support all those efforts, as well as academic challenges like remote learning and virtual graduation celebrations.

One of the most important positive outcomes for us in higher education is that we’ve become better listeners and better attuned to our audiences’ needs.

We formed a cross-disciplinary team from our already integrated University and Medicine marcom area to help solve unprecedented challenges and needs. The team represents internal and external communications, digital channels, videography, photography and creative services. We’ve produced a series of podcasts centered on what we’re doing across campus to respond to the “Coronavirus Effect,” which we have now shifted to a theme of “Coming Back Safe and Strong,” supporting our return to the workplace initiative. And we’ve developed virtual collaboration and remote learning scenarios that will most certainly continue to play a role in the future as effective communications tools in any environment.

One of the most important positive outcomes for us in higher education is that we’ve become better listeners and better attuned to our audiences’ needs. We found new ways, and updated existing methods, to engage with them. And we’ve drawn on the strength of our existing brands to do it. As our institutions and the country begin to emerge from the crisis, the challenge will be to retain the lessons learned and the brand empathy we all hopefully have gained in exchange for the proverbial status quo.

Nicholas Scibetta is vice president for marketing and communications, and the chief marketing and communications officer, at Stony Brook University, where he is responsible for the university’s overarching global communications, brand strategy and visual identity. He oversees and manages marketing, strategic communications, media/public, and community relations, crisis and issues, content/publications, digital, social and advertising for all university entities.

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